11/26/2004 12:00AM

Timo stands out in a crowd


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Oh, man. Where to begin? The half-million-dollar Hollywood Derby on Sunday looks like that other 1 1/4-mile derby run on the first Saturday in May. Contenders all over the dartboard, hailing from strange corners of the racing world, converging for about two minutes of desperate exercise.

The 10-furlong trip around Hollywood's buzzcut Bermuda is perhaps the most attractive configuration offered at this track. The run down the chute toward the stands presents the field with a fair shot at the clubhouse turn. The backstretch is long, accommodating mid-race moves. The final turn can be entertaining - it is just as sharp as it was when the course was only seven furlongs around - but there is a full three-sixteenths of dead straightaway left to make a winning statement.

Even so, with 13 aging, well-matched 3-year-olds going for one last divisional prize, chances are that luck will play a disproportionate role in the Hollywood Derby outcome. That means they all deserve a closer look, but where to begin?

Blackdoun proved his worth while dominating Del Mar, then was not embarrassed in the meat-grinder known as the Breeders' Cup Mile. He still wonders what happened that day.

Jason Orman may have lost Rock Hard Ten, but apparently he can still train, because Laura's Lucky Boy comes into the derby in good form, an affection for the course, and parental inspiration from Theatrical, who won the Breeders' Cup Turf at Hollywood in 1987.

Joursanvault presents a mystery wrapped in the enigma of Group 3 level racing in France, which is exactly where his trainer, Jenine Sahadi, found such gems as Fastness, Grand Flotilla, and Lit de Justice. This could be the start of something big.

The same European fog enshrouds Fight Club, a German colt who has been running well against older horses. Can't say any more, though, because the first rule of Fight Club is that you can never talk about Fight Club.

We can, however, revel in the possibilities of Round 2 from the Bay Meadows Derby just three weeks ago. Hendrix got the blame for racking up Big Squeeze and On the Acorn that day, and they are all back to hash it out on Sunday.

It goes deeper. Fast and Furious is the black bombshell from France who had nothing but trouble against Blackdoun at Del Mar. Imperialism - remember him? - is a noble refugee from the Kentucky Derby who is still trying to craft a post-Triple Crown personality.

Terroplane (France) and Whilly (Ireland and Italy) have left Old Europe behind with decent American form, while Good Reward - by Storm Cat out of Heavenly Prize - seems merely a Grade 1 away from sudden retirement to stud.

It should be a headlong charge at the end, no doubt, perhaps even resembling last year's derby, in which barely five lengths separated the 13 runners at the finish. Don't be surprised, though, if the dappled gray visage of Timo pokes through to seize the day.

Certainly, Timo has been keeping the right company - both four-legged and two. Last year at 2, racing on the grass, he beat Artie Schiller in New York and Imperialism in Florida. Earlier this year, he stumbled at the start of his only encounter with class leader Kitten's Joy, so throw that one out, which leaves 5 wins and 4 placings in his nine other starts. That will do.

Timo is guided by Bill Badgett, who will always be known for training Go for Wand, although there have been others of note, including Flitch, Fire Maker, and Bevo. Timo will be ridden by John Velazquez, who knows the colt, in place of Richard Migliore, who has injured his wrist. Any doubts about New Yorker Velazquez handling the intricacies of a big field on the Hollywood turf can be dispelled by viewing his work last year aboard Heat Haze in the 14-horse Matriarch. Brain surgery looks easier.

Team Timo is completed by Kevin Taylor, former jockey, exercise rider, traveling assistant, and full-time cheerleader. Born in England's "far corner" of Middlesborough 50 years ago, Taylor sees in his handsome gray charge nothing less than the ghost of Bruni, the massive gray stallion who was among the stars of the 1975 British season, when he won the classic St. Leger by a pole. Taylor was a 20-year-old apprentice at the time, riding out for Bruni's trainer, the legendary Capt. Ryan Price.

"Did you see his race at Delaware?" Taylor demanded, referring to Timo's narrow win in the nine-furlong Kent Stakes over a soft course last June. "Did you see the way he split horses and came running? For the life of me, I thought I was watching the second coming of Bruni."

Timo, unfazed by the compliment, stood quietly in his temporary Hollywood stall, diligently breathing in the warm, moist vapors from a therapeutic Transpirator unit. After 14 years together, Badgett is clearly accustomed to Taylor's enthusiasm. The trainer will be content if Timo simply fulfills the promise he has already revealed.

"He's a very smart horse," Badgett said. "He's just taken time to grow up. When he took the lead once, in one of his early races, a horse came to him and he looked over and yelled like a baby.

"As far as the derby, you'd have to say he belongs," Badgett added. "He's got the speed if he needs it to stay out of trouble. Still, in a field like this, it couldn't hurt to get a little lucky."